In the 1930s, the British military pundit B. H. Liddell Hart argued vociferously that traditional British conduct of war in the seventeenth and eighteenth had represented a strategy of minimal commitment to the wars on the European Continent while focusing on a blue-water strategy to attack the enemy on the periphery. Thus, Britain’s effort in the First World War with its emphasis on the British Expeditionary Force in France had been a terrible mistake. He could not have been more mistaken. Given German behavior and aims during World War I, Britain had no choice but to intervene. Without the support of the BEF, the Germans would have won the war and been able to challenge the British for control of the world’s oceans.
But in fact there is a greater pattern to history. The great island powers of the past (Athens of the fifth century BC and Britain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) have confronted the problem of whether to follow a blue-water strategy or commit major military forces and resources to the war on land in support of allies. For the most part, the Athenians refused to meet the Spartans head-to-head in the Peloponnesus. Instead, they were content to wage a war at sea and on the periphery. They lost.
The British, however, are a considerable contrast. In most of their wars, they have followed a strategy which placed an equal or greater effort in supporting continental allies and the war on the continent. The War of Spanish Succession saw the Duke of Marlborough, the greatest general in British history, provide crucial support to the Dutch and Austrians against the overweening power of Louis XIV’s France. Along with that military aid went considerable financial support.
In perhaps the most important conflict in the eighteenth century, the Seven Years’ War, Britain’s strategy destroyed France’s colonial empire, while at the same time supporting its continental ally, Fredrick the Great, with major military forces and subsidies. Finally, in the early nineteenth century, the combination of massive financial aid and equipment supplied to the allies along with the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsula campaign broke Napoleon’s Empire. The only war the British lost in the eighteenth century was the ill-fated effort they waged against their American colonists. In 1775 they embarked on a badly thought out policy with the support of no allies and no conflict on the continent to distract the continental powers. They lost.
Similarly, in the twentieth century the British and the Americans (the latter equivalent to an island power) waged two world wars in which by controlling the world’s oceans they were able to strangle their opponents. But to do so also required the commitment of great ground forces to the continental war as well as massive aid to their continental allies. Similarly, America’s triumph over the Soviet Union in the Cold War revolved around the combination of control of the global commons along with the commitment of major ground forces and aid to the support of allies facing the Soviets and their allies in Asia and Europe.
So what does this suggest about the future? At a minimum, it would suggest that the continuation of American support to the alliance structures developed during the Cold War is essential to maintaining American interests in peace time. Certainly, NATO represents an invaluable support to maintaining European peace, particularly given the destructive impulses of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Asia, if China in fact represents a significant military threat for the future, the alliance structures the United States had made with Asian powers will be even more important.